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A city of giants: A guide to Florence and its Renaissance greats

  • Published at 04:40 pm March 18th, 2019
Florence
Duomo di Firenze | Photo: Timothy Green

Travelogue

The birthplace of the European Renaissance attracted 10.2 million tourists in the year 2017, although upon closer inspection, one might find that the real attraction lay in it also being the birthplace of Italian gelato. Home to Da Vinci, Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli and the infamous Medici family - Florence is so steeped in science, history and culture that spending a few days roaming in its streets is enough justification for putting on the airs of an Italian nobleman (or woman). 

A story behind every structure 

One of Florence’s most iconic buildings is the Duomo di Firenze, which literally translates to Florence Cathedral (why does everything sound less romantic in English?). While the original structure there dates back to the 5th century, the new church was approved in 1294 and took 140 years to build for a rather odd reason - in the ‘my cathedral is bigger than yours’ race of the 13th century, they ended up building a structure so massive that no architect could be found who had the expertise to build a dome for it that wasn’t at risk of caving in. 

Duomo di Firenze | Photo: Timothy Green

Finally, a competition was announced and won by one of Florence’s master goldsmiths Fillippo Brunelleschi, who went on to build what was at the time an architectural marvel - the highest and widest octagonal dome of the time, with no external buttresses to support its weight, but a smaller, internal dome to hold it up. Given that there was very little understanding of the modern laws of physics or the necessary mathematical tools at hand, it is incredible that he relied on mainly his intuition and understanding of physical space to build a dome that is still standing today - a feat of engineering that had been lost in the ancient structures and was rediscovered during the Renaissance. 

In fact, Brunelleschi is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Renaissance architecture and one of the first modern engineers, and is perhaps most famous for expounding the idea of linear perspective, which uses geometric lines and a vanishing point to give the illusion of depth and space to a work of art. A simple technique, but one that that is rooted in mathematics and attributed to influencing the rise of modern science as we know it. 

Basilica di Santa Croce | Photo: Timothy Green

So why isn’t Brunelleschi an immortal Renaissance rockstar? 

Unfortunately for Brunelleschi, when he was 75, the Medici-ruled Republic of Florence gave birth to one of the greatest polymaths the world has ever seen - Leonardo da Vinci. There is an entire museum in the city dedicated to him, complete with life-size replicas of a number of his inventions that you can fiddle with to your heart’s content. On the way there, keep your eyes open for the Bargello, a former barracks and prison that, like almost everywhere else in Florence, has been turned into an art museum. However, local lore suggests that while staying in the city as a guest of the ruling Medici family, a Vinci saw the bodies of prisoners hanging from the Bargello, thus sparking his life-long interest in human anatomy - and the rest is history.

On a side note, if you are interested in the history of science, the Museo Galileo is also really worth visiting. Named after another son of Florence, often called the father of modern physics, the museum not only houses Galileo’s telescopes but a number of scientific instruments that tell a wonderful story of the history and evolution of early science. 

However, if you want to skip the science and go straight to Da Vinci’s artwork, you will find, to your great surprise, that the Mona Lisa isn’t the only thing he ever painted! The Uffizi Gallery houses a collection of works by a young Da Vinci as well as other Renaissance greats, including Botticelli (and the famous Birth of Venus), Raphael, Fabriano and more. What’s even more amazing is that this gigantic art collection that takes at least a day to properly go through was donated to the city by one heiress - Anna Maria Luisa of the Medici family. 

Ponte Vecchio and Vasari Corridor | Photo: Timothy Green

Who are the House of Medici and how did they end up ruling Florence? 

The Medici family first came to prominence when they funded Medici Bank, which became the largest one in Europe during the 15th century. With money of course comes political power, and although they allowed Florence to remain a republic until 1537, it was clear that the real rulers came from House Medici. Like any good story with power struggles and warring families, the Medici had their fair share of drama - they produced Popes and Queens, they were exiled and came back to become the Dukes of Florence and eventually the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, and a few even got assassinated.

Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of their wealth and power is the existence of the Vasari Corridor - an elevated, enclosed passageway that connects the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall that the Medici family one day decided to move into and make their own home, to the Palazzo Pitti, their chief residence. It was built in five months in 1565, when Duke Cosimo Medici decided it was essential for their family to move around the city without coming into contact with the commoners (or perhaps he felt insecure for having just abolished the republic). 

Following the Vasari Corridor will also take you over the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval bridge over the Arno river that continues its 13th century tradition of selling various goods and wares on the bridge, often in shops that are built into its sides. Of course, once the Vasari corridor was built over it, it was decided that butchers, fishmongers and tanners were a bit too low-class to be seen by nobles, so they were all uprooted and replaced with goldsmiths and jewelers, and there they are to this day. 

However, the Medici family also played another role in Florence that made them a part of history - they spent huge amounts of money on the arts and sciences and acted as the patrons of multiple Renaissance greats, including Da Vinci, Galileo, Machiavelli and of course, Michelangelo. 

A teenage protégé who took Florence by storm 

Michelangelo first came into contact with House Medici as a teenage apprentice. In fact, some of his greatest works were commissioned by Medici Popes, including the sculpture of Moses and The Last Judgment, although he is said to have later gone into self-imposed exile in protest of the Medici family’s takeover of Florence and the dissolution of the republic. 

However, if it’s Michelangelo’s greatest works that you are after, it is essential to visit the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the statue of David. While David is definitely the crowning piece of the gallery, and for obvious reasons, it also houses a few other sculptures of his (some of them unfinished), as well as Giambologna’s original full-size plaster study for the Rape of the Sabine WomenStatues of David and Dante | Photo: Timothy Green

Florence doesn’t only hold the works of some of the Renaissance greats but their tombs as well, and the Basilica di Santa Croce is the burial place of Michelangelo, Galileo, poet Foscolo and philosophers Machiavelli and Gentile. However, it also holds an empty tomb that is still waiting for another famous son of Florence - Dante Alighieri. The author of the Divine Comedy, often considered to be the father of the modern Italian language because of his controversial (at the time) decision to write in vernacular instead of literary language, was exiled from Florence for his political beliefs and eventually buried in northern Italy. Since then, Florence’s many attempts to reclaim his body has come to nothing, and a statue of a severe looking Dante now stands scowling at the basilica instead. 

Of course, this is only a tiny piece of the decadent cake that is Florence and it is impossible to see it all, especially when every corner of it has a little bit of history hidden within it. But before you leave and even if you are too full of pizza, pasta or gelato, make sure you climb the hill just south of the city’s historic center and visit the Piazzale Michelangelo. This square affords the best panoramic view of Florence and while it does get noisy and crowded during sunset, it is the perfect place to take in the city at the heart of the Italian Renaissance and imagine all the greatness that once resided in it.

Shuprova Tasneem is Supplement Editor, Dhaka Tribune.